As a born and bred Montrealer I have the impression that I understand the city’s ins and outs. With a license to guide and eight months of studying the history, culture, the social fabric of the different boroughs, it’s artistic value and economics under my belt, one then truly becomes a spokesperson of the town. At the end of the day however, a metropolis of four million people evolves faster than one can keep up with and like many other large urban centers, the local can live their entire life without needing to step out of their arrondissement, borough or district. I make the point, and not only for work, to do so, without ever truly leaving my comfort zone. Each has its own characteristics, corner shops, institutions, architecture and most importantly, the residents that that bring different colors to the streets.
We hear it often: places change. Verdun has changed, the Plateau is no longer the coolest part of the island to call home, Hochelaga has changed. We use such terms as up and coming and say places are going through a renaissance and hear that an area is booming. I decided to write the first of my chronicles about my neighborhood, which is changing and has changed, a neighborhood that is maybe misunderstood, Parc-Ex.
My father was born in Olympia, Greece. His parents brought his brother and him over to this side of the pond in the 60’s. Canada’s new, less discriminatory policies saw the Greeks who didn’t choose Australia, flock to Toronto and Montreal. Like many waves of immigration, the currents headed north along Saint-Laurent Boulevard, and in the case of the Greeks, it was Parc Avenue and eventually Parc-Extension. These days they’ve crossed the bridges to the suburbs of Laval, but not all of them.
Parc-Extension is home to the last remaining large concentration of Greeks on the island, my grandmother included. Just like the nonas and nonis in Little Italy, when they die out, new faces settle in. These are the symbolic hoods that dot our landscape. Due to the landmark businesses and community centers, restaurants and churches, the population still gathers reminiscent of yesteryear when they were the ones roaming these streets, day in and day out.
On April 13th I was riding my bike along Saint-Roch Street on my way to a friend’s in Little Italy and was horrified to encounter the district’s most valued place of worship combusting like a butane infused haystack. The night prior to the blaze thousands of Orthodox followers overflowed from the two churches on Saint-Roch lighting candles during the traditional Easter ceremonies and greeted each other with a “Christós Anésti” (Christ has Risen). On April 13th, hundreds, from all walks of life, watched in horror as an era came to an end before their very eyes and the church was transformed to ash.
My father had his funeral service at this church, as did my uncle. My siblings were baptized here and countless other family gatherings took place at the Panagitsa church. My giagia (grandmother in Greek) was planning on having her final service here. I broke the news to her via a phone call that evening that we would need to seek other options. Last week, the bulldozers came in to floor the edifice.
Parc-Extension is worlds away from other districts in Montreal, slightly similar to Cote-des-Neiges on the other side of the mountain, in the sense that this has become one of Canada’s most multiethnic areas. Also known as one of the country’s least fortunate, it sits beside one of the nation’s most affluent. Separated by a controversial metal fence and often-overlooked symbolic divide; the car infused de l’Acadie Boulevard, the stark contrast between the Town of Mount-Royal and Parc-Ex is one of the few examples of segregation in this city. It boggles my mind that Justin Trudeau who used to call Outremont home, another hothouse of wealth in Montreal, represents my electoral district. He knows less about this part of town than Wikipedia.
I bumped into Tony Asimakopoulos a month ago on a dog walk; he was taking photos of the St.-Markos church. I had the hunch that he was the fellow behind the “A walk in Park-Ex” documentary. I wanted to pick his brain about his upcoming work and his personal input about the area.
Tony is the man responsible for Fortunate Sun, a documentary about the relationship with his traditional Hellenic parents, his battle with addiction and his journey to a better life with his fiancée, produced by Montreal based EyeSteelFilm.
When I asked him what pushed him to create the documentary he told me it was about a sense of preservation. “ The place is changing fast. I see myself as simply performing a service in this regard. The “old” culture in Parc Ex (Greek) is fading, but it’s still a place that many Montreal Greeks identify with, it’s the spiritual seat of the community, the keeper of something vital. Someone once said to me, “The Greeks left but their souls still walk the streets of Park Ex.” So I’m getting a detailed record of the last days of the Greeks here, and its role in the community at large”.
He feels as if the doc might further gentrify the area, something that has been spoken about over the past few years. With the University of Montreal’s new campus opening just south of here shortly, we can only wait to see what happens. This year new condominiums went up opposite our row home. On July 2nd (one day after moving day) I noticed a significant amount of new young faces at the local supermarket. I am, without a doubt, part of this gentrification and I know that.
I hold pride in my neck of the woods and if it’s going to change I can only hope it’s for the better. Here are a few differentiating characteristics of our stomping grounds:
Parc Ex is dirty, and this bothers me. I see few parts of our island where trash is sprinkled across the streets and moves a few meters every now and then like tumbleweeds.
Parc Ex has kids, lots of kids. Rosemont has kids but Parc Ex probably has the highest concentration of little ones per square kilometer after the Orthodox Jewish streets of the Mile-End. They play in our alleyways and speak four languages at times. I watch these kids at the corner store accommodate to the older vendor who speaks no French. With him they speak English. They switch back to French with their siblings and then to Hindi to translate the price to their paying parents. This is Parc Ex.
Parc Ex is cheap. Housing prices are on the rise but even the local economics differ from the other side of the park or underpass. I get my haircut, professionally done mind you, at Gold Scissors. The old school in-the-basement institution is run by a brotherhood of Turks. I leave here groomed for half the price of what I used to pay in the Plateau Mont-Royal. When you agree to have the hair on your ears removed, be prepared to have the barber’s pocket lighter ignited by your lobes for the trim. This is Parc-Ex.
There is a sense of community here I feel when I walk the streets. Each time I step foot outdoors I share a wave with my Italian neighbors across from me who spend their days on their front patio. I will never forget the afternoon when a suspicious passerby overspent his time in front of the house of the couple’s home adjacent to the Italians while they were obviously on vacation. I watched, perched over my balustrade as the immediate neighbors rose from their seats to scare him off with their presence and energy. We all looked at each other as he walked away, and without a word returned to our outdoor seating. This is the eyes on the streets theory Jane Jacobs speaks of when she is explaining the subconscious but reflex patrolling you find in the denser areas of our great cities.
My new friend Nikki from two doors down doesn’t feel this brotherhood like she used to when she grew up here. I’ve crossed paths with her on a few occasions while walking our dogs. The fact her partner and her were enjoying coffee and cigarettes at my place after only a few sessions of chitchat, is why I beg to differ. She left the hood at ten years old to return to the homeland. Her father was working at Le Fameux, the late night diner style institution on Saint-Denis. The economy in Greece saw a small boom in the early 90’s and her parents took her back to her roots. After the crisis in 2012, she said goodbye to Athens and moved back to her birthplace in 2014. Nikko, her partner who she met on an anti-Nazi chartroom, joined her shortly after.
She feels it has changed here tremendously. She is as irritated by the amount of rubbish on our roads as I am. She feels uncomfortable with the comments or looks she gets from men when walking on her own, though she isn’t shy to let them know being the tough cookie she is. She still felt the urge to move back to where she felt comfortable in a way, surrounded by family and familiar street signs. Her parents still vacation in Greece during summer months, a tradition amongst the community.
Among the newest faces in the community is La Place Commune on av. Querbes. When the Parc-Ex Florist moved west along Saint-Roch, my friends and I wondered what would become of this fabulous corner locale. When I saw hand-written construction paper signs taped to the vitrines of the façade letting us know that a locally based co-op/café and community gathering spot was in the works I breathed a sigh of relief. I stumbled in on my way home one day from work to converse with the young lady behind the counter. La Place Commune is brought to us by young urban farmers who are residents of the area and want to make fresh produce accessible to all. Rather than this being a luxury, it is our right they say. The space is quaint and the food healthy, yummy and at honest prices. I am interested in seeing what implication they will have with the locals. They are after all, locals themselves.
As someone who gets around on two wheels, I am shocked about the lack of infrastructure in my neck of the woods that isn’t car oriented. Friends of mine from the adjoining boroughs often find it too far to join me for dinner. The CP railroads force us on the bicycle under so-called death tunnels where we are squeezed into walled-in underpasses with no curbs and speed hungry motorists. I wonder if this is one of the reasons it’s held out for so long.
At a Montreal Cycle Chic event this summer, a young man overheard me complaining about the lack of awareness for us who get around by bike here. He presented himself as someone who worked with Transport actif Parc-Extension. They are a group who are out there to promote sane sharing of the space and furthermore rock the boat when it comes to making being a pedestrian or cyclist less fearful. This year, much needed pedestrian crossing lights were introduced at two intersections on rue Ogilvy. Unfortunately we receive much off traffic from those who would otherwise be stuck in congestion of the surrounding thoroughfares using our streets as shortcuts.
I wonder if some of these people would walk these streets and walk away with a better understanding of what an authentic neighborhood is like. I wonder if they would feel like this short cut was worthwhile visiting or inhabiting. The only borough I felt this authenticity and rough around the edges vibe was present in was the Bronx, New York (if I had to compare). You just can’t find domino players on street corners and 75-cent café con leches in New York anymore. We’ll wait to see what happens to the Bronx while us in Parc-Ex hold tight.
I left the Sri Lankan corner shop last night as a young boy emerged from the cloudy windowed basement mosque next door. We had walked side by side before that night but on this particular evening the maybe 11-year-old lad greeted me in French. I returned the greeting and asked him if he was Pakistani and if the mosque he came from was Islamic. He responded with a simple nod of the head. I then wished him a goodnight as I crossed the street. He cried out to me in French “And you sir, what country are you from?” from across the road. After a silent three seconds of me contemplating my response, I responded. “Parc-Ex”. He nodded once more and replied “Me too”.